Study finds graphic active shooter drills instill fear in students instead of helping, but what are the other options? Experts weigh in

Concerns about the impact of active school shooter drills and exercises on the mental health of students have also been growing, especially since they often tend to be very realistic and graphic.


                            Study finds graphic active shooter drills instill fear in students instead of helping, but what are the other options? Experts weigh in

As school safety concerns grow in the country due to firearm violence, authorities are scrambling to find a way to put a stop to the instances or at least, be prepared in case tragedy strikes.  The recent school shooting in Santa Clarita California that killed three was the latest in the list. 

The issue has received increasing attention from school personnel and policymakers but little is known about preventing and reducing school firearm violence, says a study co-authored by James H. Price and Jagdish Khubchandani. Moreover, concerns about the impact of active school shooter drills and exercises on the mental health of students have also been growing, especially since they often tend to be very realistic and graphic.

School crossing guards at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pay their respects at a memorial setup for those killed on February 14, 2019, in Parkland, Florida (Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In Indiana, earlier this year, two teachers were left injured after they were shot "execution-style" with pellet guns as part of an active shooter training conducted by the local sheriff’s office. Experts have called out the trauma that could come with such exercises.  

"Active shooter exercises are instilling fear in students, but there is a qualitative difference between a drill and an exercise. People have been doing drills in schools for years - duck and cover for nuclear attacks, fire drills, earthquake and tornado drills, etc. Drills are about building the necessary muscle memory so that if the very worst day should happen in any emergency situation, the body knows how to respond if the mind goes on autopilot. Exercises, on the other hand, are the worst-case examples we have been hearing about in the news, with teachers being shot with pellets, kids being exposed to simulated gunfire and crisis actors. None of that is needed to help prepare kids (and we did not use any of that in our study)," Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut, Associate Professor at the Department of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego said, speaking to MEA World Wide. 

Threat assessment or lockdown? 

Both, along with an emergency response, say experts. 

"Threat assessment is a great tool that schools can - and should - use, but it is one layer. School security and safety must be a layered approach because there is a large margin of error dealing with humans," Dr. Schildkraut says.

A parent waits outside of Saugus high after a shooting occurred at the School in Santa Clarita, CA Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Photo by David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

It is a great way to identify kids in crisis, not just the ones who would become shooters, she says. The addition of counselors will also help students struggling with mental health issues. But that cannot be it. "Even in instances where threat assessment has been used to identify a threat, such as in Parkland, something has to be done and even that does not guarantee the very worst day does not come. In short, it is not either/or - schools should have both a threat assessment plan and an emergency response plan that encompasses lockdowns," she says. 

What should a threat assessment entail? 

Dr. Khubchandani says that threat assessment should involve a couple of things.

The motivation for the behavior that brought the student being evaluated to official attention should be noted, along with the student's communication about ideas and intentions. An unusual interest in targeted violence along with evidence of attack-related behaviors and planning, a capacity to carry out an act of targeted violence should be noted as a part of the assessment. 

 Law enforcement and first responders from Cumberland and York Counties participate in a regional active shooter training at Deering High School led by the District II Training Council. (Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

He added that feelings of hopelessness or despair including suicidal ideation or attempts or recent losses, real or perceived including losses of status, a trusting relationship with a responsible adult and the belief that violence is a solution to his or her problems, should be paid attention to. Concerns that entail a student's potential for harm should be paid heed to, as well as factors in the student’s life and/or environment that might increase or decrease the likelihood of an attack, should be assessed. 

"Using a combination is good as long as there is more emphasis on threat assessment- spend more resources in threat assessment," he said.

According to a Secret Service report from 2019 the most common motive involved a grievance with classmates and most attackers had experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms, half of them had interests in violent topics and nearly all of them had negative home life factors and were subject to bullying. All attackers had also exhibited concerning behaviors while some elicited concern from others, most communicated their intent to attack, the report said. 

Lockout, Lockdown, Evacuate, Shelter, and Hold

Dr Schildkraut was also part of the 'Implementing and Testing the Standard Response Protocol' report which was a joint effort undertaken by her on behalf of SUNY Oswego and the Syracuse City School District.

Unlike, ALICE, Standard Response Protocol (SRP-X) is free and provides emergency preparedness training for five different situations: Lockout, Lockdown, Evacuate, Shelter, and Hold. These five scenarios also reflect the functional annexes that schools are required to train for by the State of New York, said Schildkraut. All resources are available online with the I Love U Guys Foundation

"Since virtually none of the safety and security solutions being peddled to schools have any hard evidence behind them showing their effectiveness, schools would be better to use one of the low- to no cost programs and invest in bigger issues kids face today, such as mental health needs and even school lunch grants," she said. 

The report shows that practicing through drills and having training improve the effectiveness of lockdown such that people are securing more effectively and checking more of the criteria that are needed to be safe and secure.

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